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Canzano: Boosters fume as Oregon Ducks look for answers


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Estimated read time: 8-9 minutes

There's considerable frustration among some high-profile donors and boosters at the University of Oregon.

They had a front-row seat on Saturday for a modern remake of one of Aesop's greatest hits — "The Tortoise and the Hare."

Oregon State beat Oregon 38-34.

The Ducks spent a pile of money, built lavish facilities, hired a line of high-dollar recruiters, worked the analytics, but got beat by the slow and steady act of Jonathan Smith and Oregon State.

One frustrated UO donor saw the Ducks ahead by 21 points in the second half, picked up the phone, and bought a luxury suite at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas for the Pac-12 Championship game.

The cost: $11,000, plus catering.

"Last box that wasn't in the corners of the stadium," the donor said.

I'm still trying to wrap my head around what we saw at Reser Stadium. Oregon State deserves big-time credit. I wrote about the Beavers unthinkable path to victory in my postgame column.

Smith's team demonstrated exceptional resilience. It overcame terrible officiating and three turnovers. It endured a horrendous start to the second half and walked off winners. But the focus now is on the hand-wringing currently going on at Oregon.

The Beavers overcame that massive second-half deficit against the youngest coaching staff in major college football. They did so with only 60 passing yards. Blame Dan Lanning for some of it? Sure. He was reckless. But the big-dollar donors at Oregon did not. Instead, they turned their postgame ire toward the athletic director who hired him — Rob Mullens.

It wasn't just a lost football game on Saturday. The Ducks let a potential Rose Bowl slip through their fingers. They saw millions in revenue evaporate. They lost recruiting advantages, took a brand hit, and were embarrassed on television.

The donors don't really blame Lanning. They expected growing pains. It's not his fault he was put in charge. One of them compared the Oregon football operation to a $200,000 Bentley, handed to an inexperienced driver. Do you blame the young driver for dinging up the car? Or the person who gave him the keys?

"It was fraught with risk," said one booster.

Oregon head coach Dan Lanning calls to players during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Oregon State on Saturday, Nov 26, 2022, in Corvallis, Ore.
Oregon head coach Dan Lanning calls to players during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Oregon State on Saturday, Nov 26, 2022, in Corvallis, Ore. (Photo: Amanda Loman, Associated Press)

The donors are instead focused on Mullens, the AD, for hiring a coaching staff that looked in over its head on Saturday. They blame him.

Said a second long-time UO donor: "I'm not even mad about the game. I'm mad that it was predictable and the person in charge allowed it to be."

It's an interesting time for Mullens, who oversees a $70 million budget at Oregon. His chief booster, Phil Knight, is 84. There's a sense of urgency. Insiders tell me the Nike co-founder has become "all about recruiting" because he wants to win now. It's why Willie Taggart and Mario Cristobal were put in charge. Also, why Lanning was the hire last December.

USC athletic director Mike Bohn hired Lincoln Riley, who now looks like a home run. Washington AD Jennifer Cohen appears to have topped that move with a sneaky good hire in Kalen DeBoer. The Huskies are dangerous.

Both of those hires had proof of performance as head coaches. Oregon went with the 35-year old University of Georgia defensive coordinator, who was presented to them as one of the best recruiters in college football by Parker Executive Search. UO paid the firm $95,000 for the assist.

Parker Executive Search is the same firm that brought Mullens himself to Oregon. It's also the firm currently conducting the search for the next president at UO. That's not unusual by industry standards, but it's worth noting that the firm is a stakeholder in what's happening in Eugene.

Before the Oregon uniforms had even been laundered on Saturday night, 32-year-old Oregon offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham was ushered to a Cessna Citation V aircraft at Corvallis Municipal Airport. He flew to Phoenix. Late Saturday night, Arizona State finalized the deal to make him its next head football coach.

Dillingham was supposed to sign the contract, be announced as coach in a Sunday-morning news conference, then bolt back to Eugene to prepare for the Pac-12 title game. But that plan was scrapped when the Ducks lost to Oregon State, per a source. Dillingham changed the play and is staying at ASU to meet with players, boosters, and media over the next few days.

Sports is built on hope.

So I'll sell some now.

Let's be real, the high expectations in Eugene are a product of Oregon's success over the years. The Ducks donors are wringing their hands over going 9-3. The donors in Corvallis may throw a parade for the same 9-3 mark.

When you enter the race with win-big mentality, the highs may be high, but anything less feels like rock bottom. Were the expectations for Lanning too grand in his first season? He's a first time, first-year head coach, for crying out loud. Is it rotten for Ducks fans to look down upon a potential Holiday Bowl invite? Is it possible if Bo Nix had just stayed healthy, we'd be having a different conversation?

Yes — to all.

Mullens will have to go all-in in support of Lanning. Knight will, too. The Nike co-founder can't be pleased that his investment face-planted on Saturday. Oregon has typically responded to misfires over the years by regrouping and rebounding in a dynamic way. I expect this will be no different.

Lanning is a person of substance. I suspect he barely slept and will emerge from this motivated. He must replace Dillingham with an upgrade hire. He has more than $6 million to spend on his assistant-coach pool. He's a good recruiter. Lanning will need to bring in better players; ones more suited to the style he wants to play on defense.

Oregon's staff got out-foxed by Smith and company on Saturday. It wasn't flashy or loud. OSU simply maintained a steady gait, eyes forward, while the Ducks raced far ahead, took a nap, then woke in a panic, realizing they'd blown it.

The donors were fuming on Saturday night. That $11,000 luxury suite in Las Vegas will feature USC vs. Utah instead of Oregon. The Rose Bowl may even land in Washington's lap.

"It's hard to comprehend," said the donor stuck with the suite.

Some other things …

ASU HIRES DILLY: Arizona State was all over Kenny Dillingham, wasn't it? It's banking on the hometown kid who attended ASU. Dillingham and I talked about the Sun Devils program earlier this season and I left the conversation thinking it was his dream job. He can recruit well and call plays. We learned that. But will he be a great program CEO? TBD. That said, I don't blame ASU for hiring him. It's what I'd have done.

DAM COLLECTIVE: Oregon State's NIL collective — DamNation — launched a "Rivalry Special" in the wake of the 38-34 victory over Oregon. Interested parties can donate $38.34 to assist their efforts to help OSU athletes. Dick Oldfield, one of the co-founders said: "We have a lot of work to do and won't rest until it's done."

STANFORD LOSING SHAW: After the Cardinal lost to BYU, David Shaw announced he'd coached his final game. He sounded like a guy who was done with the year-round grind of college football. The pandemic, the transfer portal, NIL, and a 6-18 record in the last two seasons couldn't have been easy. Shaw told me before this season that he felt like a "tiger, lying in the weeds." I wish the guy well. He was classy and won the right way. Stanford is going to be a tough place to win amid the current academic standards. Some boosters and football fans at Stanford are celebrating today, though. I know a few. They were ready for something else, too.

WASHINGTON: The Huskies are well positioned for the Rose Bowl. Some things broke their way on Saturday. Oregon lost, for one. If USC beats Utah in the Pac-12 title game, it's possible that UW will go to the Rose Bowl. One year after Jimmy Lake's firing?!?! Huskies fans ought to send AD Jen Cohen a bouquet of roses this week.

USC: Every Heisman Trophy winner needs a "Heisman Moment." Did Caleb Williams give America one on Saturday vs. Notre Dame? Or does he need one more vs. Utah in the Pac-12 title game?

UTAH: The Utes beat USC 43-42 earlier this season. I was in Salt Lake City and saw it up close. But Utah hasn't looked like that team since. QB Cam Rising has struggled in big games. The receivers don't scare you. The running game is inconsistent. There's just something — off — about the operation. That said, USC has struggled on defense this season. I think Utah will score points in the title game. I'll be in Las Vegas for the title game. Here's the question: Can Kyle Whittingham rally his team to play above its head on defense? The Utes scored on five of six second-half possessions vs. USC in their first game. The lone stop came when Utah fumbled deep in the red zone.

Read more of columnist John Canzano exclusively at JohnCanzano.com.

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John Canzano is a sports columnist and radio show host. He's worked at six newspapers and has won 11 Associated Press Sports Editors Awards in column writing, investigative reporting and projects. He lives in Oregon and hosts a daily statewide radio show there. Read more of his content at JohnCanzano.com.

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